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High times for Atlanta lowbrow 

Southern culture goes beyond the skids

Any of the 2,500 or so people who head out to the Starlight Six Drive-In this weekend will feel like they're attending a family reunion.

Drive-Invasion, the annual harmonic convergence of Atlanta's lowbrow-culture scene, brings together punk-inspired rockabilly, garage and surf rock, hot-rod and custom-car contests, and a slew of old horror and science-fiction movies, shown from dusk practically till dawn.

It's the signature event in a scene that over the past decade has flourished by celebrating fading cultural landmarks and old pop trends. With the help of a creative cadre of musicians, performance artists, promoters and tinkerers, ancient theaters such as the Starlight and the Plaza, and converted industrial spaces such as the Alcove Gallery, are taking the past and bringing it alive with a new, uniquely Atlantan energy. Lowbrow culture has taken root in Atlanta.

The word "lowbrow" has come to describe the embrace of a whole range of 20th-century pop-culture trends with a decidedly DIY spirit – from the hot-rod scene of the Roaring '20s and the post-World War II tiki-bar craze to pop-surrealist, cartoon and comic-book art. The West Coast hipsters seem to celebrate all things lowbrow with a sense of irony that hints at trendiness.

But in Atlanta – where highways and power centers sometimes overshadow a more homegrown personality – a tightly knit group of creative spirits seems to have left irony behind in favor of an authentic lowbrow aesthetic with its own Southern accent.

"You go to the Tiki Invasion in L.A. at the Mission Tiki Drive-In, and the people don't even stay for the movies," says Shane Morton, an Atlanta indie-rock veteran, lowbrow/tattoo artist and Drive-Invasion regular who launched the Silver Scream Spook Show in 2006. "There was a guy I know in a band here who played out there, and he said he was ashamed. He told me, 'They just don't get it.' They want to see and be seen and check out the bands and then leave. The L.A. people just don't get it."

Talk to an Atlanta lowbrow artist, performer or fan, and you'll probably find someone who was raised on '70s and '80s TV, underground comics or punk-rock music and developed a passion for the rebellious entertainment outlets where people eschew what's presented to them and create entertainment for themselves.

Many of them forge new identities and forms of artistic expression. Persona, the assumption of another identity, is everything. Some even prefer to go by their nicknames or pseudonyms when being interviewed.

The result is a free-spirited form of fun, as varied as the influences – to the point that many in the scene find themselves working in two or more different groups. A rocker becomes a burlesque dancer, a tattoo artist becomes a bandleader.

It's a fair bet you'll find some of the key figures in the scene either onstage or in the crowd this weekend at Drive-Invasion. As if charmed by their creative connections and collaborations, they inevitably seem to wind up at the same place one way or another, as performer or spectator.

For example:

• Dirk Hays, a tattoo artist, opened the Gallery at East Atlanta Tattoo next to his shop to pursue his passion for lowbrow art inspired by Big Daddy Roth and R. Crumb. But you can also catch him as the leader and washtub bassist for a country-psychedelic-death-metal outfit called Uncle Daddy & the Kissin' Cousins.

• Barb Hays, Dirk's wife, is a buyer at the Junkman's Daughter in Little Five Points. Her alter-ego, Barbilicious, plays bass and shares vocals in the cheeky chick-rock band Lust. She also dances with Sadie Hawkins in the Blast-Off Burlesque troupe they co-founded two years ago.

• Tattoo artist Shane Morton and his girlfriend, Amy Dumas, started the punk-rock band the Luchagors after Dumas retired from her career as the champion Lita in World Wrestling Entertainment. (They'll perform at Drive-Invasion.) Their old friend, freelance journalist Jon Waterhouse, started the Van Heineken tribute band, which performed at May's Monster Bash at the Starlight.

• Singer Mike Geier (frontman for Kingsized and Tongo Hiti) and his wife, Shannon Newton (leader of Dames Aflame) often collaborate for shows that marry swinging Vegas-style lounge music with vaudeville burlesque.

• Jonathan Rej, a veteran of Atlanta's indie-rock scene (the Mouthbreathers, Puddin'), bought another neighborhood movie landmark, the Plaza, with his wife, Gayle, two years back.

It's gotten to where they all seem to know where everyone will be from one night to the next, whether it's at an art opening, a band's gig, a show at the Plaza, an event like the Drive-Invasion.

"We're such an incestuous little group," Dirk Hays concedes with a grin.

The growth of the scene has created challenges, whether it's about maintaining authenticity or just not spreading the talent too thin.

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